Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

"You're so selfish, Amy!" Corrine looked ready to throw her forkful of mashed potatoes across the table at her younger sister.
Amy took a deep breath before she responded to her older sister; she felt capable of stabbing Corrine with her own fork. "I don't understand what you think is so selfish, Corrine." Amy grimaced as she spoke.
"I asked you what you like about your job; you tell everyone you love it so much. Why won't you tell me?"
Amy sighed again, trying to formulate an appropriate response. She had resisted telling her sister that she loved working at the Sears's photography center because she could practice the hobby she hoped to someday turn into a career. Just a few moments before asking her sister about work, Corrine had offered strongly worded complaints about the new photography collection at the Portland Art Museum. Apparently Corrine had been stuck in downtown traffic created by the grand opening of the new permanent photography collection. Amy was unconvinced that even in Portland could a new wing in a museum upset traffic that much, but she resisted arguing with her sister. Corrine's complaints about the value of photography had made Amy hesitant to share her desire to become a photographer. She was again presented with the need to respond to her sister without heightening the already tense situation.
"It's nothing against you, Corrine," Amy started off with a blatant lie, "I just don't have any specific reasons for liking my job. It fits me well all around." At least her last sentence was true.
Corrine was unsatisfied and violently stabbed at the gravy drenched turkey on her plate as she grumbled, "I still think you're not being honest with me."
"I'm so thankful to have both my beautiful daughters here on Thanksgiving!" The interruption of their father seemed ill timed, but at least it was redirecting the conversation rather than irritating the argument as his comments usually did. "And my beautiful wife and granddaughter, and you, too, Stuart." He laughed at his own unfunny joke that resisted calling his son-in-law beautiful. Stuart politely chuckled along, still uncomfortable by his wife and sister-in-law's heated exchanged. It wasn't the first time he'd witnessed the sisters fight, but no one likes to be a bystander in a family quarrel.
"Thanks for hosting us, Mom and Dad," Stuart awkwardly tried to push the conversation further away from the sisters' argument.
The family finished their meal in uncomfortable silence.
Amy's mom insisted that they have time to let their dinner settle before bringing out the pies. Amy would have preferred to leave immediately after dinner, but she knew it would only upset her sister more. She settled into the twenty-year old sofa to watch the holiday made for TV movie her dad had turned on. The predictable plot couldn't keep Amy's attention, and her mind replayed the conversation from earlier that afternoon. Corrine had made a comment about how art was worthless, and Amy had subsequently shut down emotionally for the rest of the day. Amy brooded through the cliché kiss at the end of the holiday movie when her mom finally decreed it was time for dessert.
Amy sat herself down at the countertop where all the pies were laid out and served herself a large slice of apple pie. She lifted the first forkful to her mouth when Corrine interrupted her enjoyment of warm apple and cinnamon.
"Listen, Amy, I don't want us to leave upset." Her tone was patronizing. Amy chose to keep her focus on her pie as her sister continued.
"Maybe we could have lunch tomorrow," Corrine said, "I really want to be friends with you, not just sisters." Corrine reached her hand out to touch her little sister's left hand while she finished speaking. Amy's first instinct was to recoil her hand at the first touch, but she chose to keep her hand under her sister's although every muscle in her body was tense. She took another bite of pie with her free right hand.
"I know," Corrine continued, "We could go see a movie. What's out right now?"
"There's that movie version of Rent -"
            "Ugh, the artsy one, right? I don't want to see that. What a waste of time. Why would anyone waste time watching that?"
"I think it's a cultural representation of modern life to demonstrate the relevance of -"
            "Whatever, I don't want to see it. What else is out?"
Amy pushed the crumbs of her pie around on her plate. "I don't know what else is out."
"How about we just go Christmas shopping? I need to buy Beth some Christmas presents downtown. Black Friday shopping might be a fun adventure." Corrine's voice dripped with anticipation at this new idea.
Amy was still caught up on Corrine's offhand comment dismissing the validity of an artistic representation of the modern context. She had also been planning to go to the Portland Art Museum on black Friday to enjoy the new photography exhibit. It was the region's largest permanent exhibition space dedicated to photography within a museum, and it had just opened a month ago. Amy was a museum member, but had not had a day off to enjoy the new exhibit.
She cleared her throat as she pushed her chair away from the countertop. "I don't think I can go shopping with you tomorrow, Corrine. I already had plans for tomorrow." She picked up her plate and placed it in the kitchen sink. "I think I'm going to head back to my apartment. Bye, Mom. Bye, Dad. Bye, Stuart, Corrine. Beth, give me some snuggles." She wrapped her little niece up in a big hug as she walked towards the door.
"I wish you didn't have to rush out, sweetie," her mom said.
"I've been here all day, Mom. Thanks for cooking dinner. I'll see you later." She hugged each of her family members at the door and passed Beth back to her mom.
She wrapped her warm mustard colored pea coat around herself and headed out to her car.
The next morning Amy was once again wrapping her bright colored coat around her as she prepared for her adventure downtown to the art museum. Her phone rang as she was pulling on her gloves. She let it go to voicemail and heard her out of date answering machine mimic the dull "Speak" of Mark and Roger in Rent. She laughed at the inside joke her sister clearly didn't get.
"What does that even mean, Amy? It's Corinne, by the way. Look, I just wanted to check that you couldn't change your plans for today. I'm going downtown to check out some of the baby boutiques for some gifts for Beth. Stuart is going to stay at home with her, so it'll just be the two of us. I really want you to open up to me. I hate that we've got this gap between us. We're sisters; we should be best friends. Anyways, give me a call back. I'm leaving at two. Bye."
Amy ignored Corrine's value judgment about what their relationship should look like and walked to the MAX station to visit the photography exhibit as planned. She tucked her earbuds in as she settled into the hour long train ride before she had to walk the final quarter mile to the art museum. When the MAX pulled into the Library stop, Amy slung her bag over her shoulder and headed down Park Avenue. It only took her a few minutes to walk the five blocks to the museum entrance, and she was thankful for the warmth that greeted her when she opened the door. Amy handed her museum pass and ID to the shaggy haired clerk who smiled as he returned them with her ticket.
"Enjoy your visit."
"Thanks, I will." Amy made her way from the main entrance directly to the main floor of the Jubitz Center where the new photography collection was. She took nearly two hours winding in and out of the partial walls that jutted out of the long back wall designated for pictures from the last several generations. Her skin tingled at the thought that maybe someday her pictures would hang with these. As she was most familiar with photographing people because of her job, Amy spent more time gazing at the faces framed on the wall. One particular photo of a Native American taken in the late nineteen thirties particularly fascinated Amy. She stepped close to the photo so that her face was only inches from the tiny representation of the man's face and tried to look into his eyes. He was squinting off to the side, and one of his eyes was drooping lower than the other. She took a step back to reevaluate the full picture of his startling hair, styled to stick out six inches off his head, in conjunction with his focused gaze. She stepped closer again to look at the detail on his weathered vest, his deep wrinkled skin, his lips glued in a thoughtful frown. After ten minutes looking at this one photo, Amy moved on to survey the rest of the photography.
She made her way upstairs to the post 1960s art and spent another hour there before moving on to the contemporary art on the top floor. At three she realized she was getting hungry, having spent the last four hours in the museum rather than eating lunch. She made her way back to Park Avenue and walked up to Yamhill before turning east towards the Pioneer Place Mall. She tucked her hands in the pockets of her warm yellow jacket as she marched through the brisk fall air. The ten blocks to the mall was enough distance to turn her cheeks red from the cold. She stayed wrapped in her coat as she made her way to the basement food court.
Christmas shoppers were still jammed into every store. The dedicated Black Friday customers were still going strong late in the afternoon, and Amy was frustrated by the extra bustle. She noticed McDonald's had the shortest line, so she made her way to the counter and ordered a burger. There wasn’t any available seating that Amy could see, so she began to walk back towards the escalator to return to street level. Just after she passed the Gymboree, Amy thought she heard someone call her name. She paused for a moment and heard it again.
This time she recognized the voice. Amy faltered, not wanting to turn around, but knowing it would be childish to run away from her sister in the crowded mall.
"I know that coat, Amy. I'd know that horrible yellow anywhere." Her sister had walked up behind her. "What are you doing here?"
Amy continued chewing the bite of her hamburger that was in her mouth as she thought of an answer.
Corrine didn't wait for her to finish, "This - this is what you had plans to do today? Eat McDonald's by yourself at the mall? You turned down Christmas shopping for your niece with me for this? A Big Mac? I can't believe you, Amy! I was trying to reach out to you, and you shut me down for a Big Mac. What's wrong with you? Don't you care about family at all? Why won't you be friends with me, Amy? Answer me!" Corrine's tone was menacing, and she looked prepared to use her shopping bags as weapons against her sister if Amy's answers weren't satisfactory.
Amy had finished chewing at this point, but she wished she hadn't swallowed yet. "I, uh, just needed a day to myself. I haven't been shopping without you, I promise. I just needed to get a burger and happened to come in here."
"You couldn't find a McDonald's that satisfied you anywhere closer than half an hour from your apartment?"
"I didn't just come downtown for the McDonald's, Corinne." Amy was irritated with her sister's judgmental accusations.
"Well, then why? Why did you come downtown, Amy? Tell me."
"I haven't been downtown in a while, and I just decided I wanted to spend a few hours out here alone," she replied.
She was unwilling to be completely honest with her sister, and Corinne sensed there was missing information. Tears of frustration formed in Corrine's eyes as she recognized that her little sister was yet again refusing to open up to her. Amy sighed, not wanting to make a scene amongst the Christmas shopping frenzy.
"Corrine, do we really have to do this here? Look, I'm sorry I didn't want to go shopping with you. To be honest, I hate shopping. I didn't come to the mall to shop; I came to find cheap protein to keep my body functioning."
Corrine sniffed, and the tears still threatened to spill from her eyes. "I can't help but take it personally, Amy."
Amy sighed heavily; she couldn't help but take it personally that Corinne hated art. Torn by the decision to hurt Corinne or allow Corinne to hurt her, Amy offered a weak apology.
"I'm sorry, Corinne. I'll see you later."
Without giving her sister a chance to respond, Amy turned and walked away. She hugged the yellow coat close to herself and kept her head down as her sister let the tears finally fall.
"Amy!" She called out and started towards her sister, "Amy, you can't just leave me like that. That's so rude! I can't believe you sometimes. Let's be mature about this. Why can't you tell me what you had to do today?"
"I guess I can't be as mature as you right now, Corinne."
The sarcasm was lost on the self righteous sister. Amy didn't stop as she delivered her response, and Corinne struggled to keep up with Amy's pace. Several shopping bags swayed and smashed next to the sisters as they walked briskly along. Corinne offered a few more frustrated pleas for Amy's confession, but the aspiring photographer refused. By the time they reached the door to the street, Corinne gave up and turned back to finish her shopping. Amy stepped outside and crossed Morrison to wait for the next westbound MAX. As she waited by the platform, Amy noticed a photographer snapping photos of a kissing couple. She smiled in satisfaction, realizing that although her sister would never understand her love of photography, there were at least three other people in the city of Portland who appreciated the art.

Friday, December 9, 2011

94 Ounces from Death

            "Strawberries Wild for Laura." The happy young high schooler behind the Jamba Juice counter placed my smoothie on the clean surface. I grabbed my drink with a slurred "thankyou" and jogged out to my car. I was running late for my friend Mackenzie's senior dinner. Every year our tiny Christian high school hosted a family potluck for seniors and their families during the week before graduation. Potlucks are among the more dangerous environments for someone like myself who has life threatening food allergies. However, it was worth the risk of being around potentially deadly food in order to celebrate Mackenzie's graduation.
            My heart was already pumping fast because I was running late, but a sip of my safe smoothie cooled my nerves. I checked my clock at least ten times during the five minute drive to my old high school. The parking lot was already full of anxious parents and soon to be graduates. I parked on the street next to the back building. With my full purse in one hand and Jamba Juice in the other I jogged to the main entrance. I slowed to a walk as other parents and students trickled towards the only entrance. The warm June air was stuffed into the main hallway and every person who entered the building packed the heat in tighter.
            Even though the gym doors were all open, people seemed to force the stale air into the dark gym as they walked in, and the heat refused to leave on its own accord. The staff kept as many of the overhead lights off as possible to help with the heat. The room was decorated exactly how it had been two years previously for my own graduation. Blue and white plastic tablecloths covered the tables moved from the nearest three classrooms. The same dollar store centerpieces were evenly spaced through the rows. The same squeaky uncomfortable folding chairs were lined up on either side of the tables.
            I found a seat next to Mackenzie; I was here as her sister. This family only event was not open to friends, but none of the staff would kick me out. The teachers were in their usual spot, manning the food tables as parents brought in their salads, casseroles, and desserts. They all greeted me warmly when I first walked into the gym. The tables were already full of homemade dishes by the time I had sat down with Mackenzie. One bite of any of these anonymous dishes had the potential to kill me. I swallowed thoughtfully as I took a sip of my cool pink drink. The refreshing flavor of strawberries and banana fought away the stifling heat of the dark gym.
            "It looks like almost everyone's here," the principal directed the attendant's attention
to where he stood at the front of the gym, "If you will all please find your seats, I'll open us in a word of prayer. After a moment of shuffling and squeaking of folding chairs, a hush settled over the gym. I bowed my head as Mr. Cochran gave thanks for the plentiful food and the opportunity to celebrate the graduating students with their families.
            I stayed in my seat when my table was dismissed, taking a few more small sips of my drink. I wanted to make it last through everyone else's dinner. I watched everyone around me begin to eat their meals full of a variety of ingredients. That green bean casserole might have soy sauce in it. I could see the nuts sprinkled on top of that salad. Did people ever put peanuts in lasagna? I took another sip of my Jamba Juice, aware of every ingredient. I managed to extend the life of my smoothie to some point during the dessert time so I didn't look terribly lonely eating nothing while everyone else around me enjoyed nut brownies or peanut butter cookies.
            Once most people had finished eating their desserts, the principal asked the first parents to come up and share pictures and stories of their graduating child. Somewhere around the fourth set of parents I noticed that I had some difficulty swallowing. I took a rather dry swallow to make sure; my throat was definitely swelling. I pulled my full thirty-two ounce water bottle out of my purse and took a sip. The water went down, but not as easily as it should have. This was a possible symptom of an anaphylactic reaction.
            Anaphylaxis is a fascinating medical phenomenon. It's somewhat unpredictable, and if this was a genuine symptom, I could be dead in a matter of minutes or hold on to life for several hours without medical intervention. I needed to identify as quickly as possible whether this was a genuine allergic reaction or not.
            I felt my face flush as I took inventory of other physical symptoms of anaphylaxis. I tried to slow my breathing to prevent an unnecessary panic attack. The tops of my ears were my first indicator; during my last few anaphylactic reactions my ears had felt like they were on fire. They were only tingling now; that could be purely psychological. Maybe my ears were tingling in anticipation of a reaction that wasn't going to happen. My next key indicator was blotchy patches below my ears and on my scalp. I couldn't see my scalp or my ears to know if they were blotchy right now though. I couldn't go to the bathroom to check now; Mackenzie's parents would be sharing soon and I didn't want to risk missing her big moment. I took another sip of water.
            My heart was pounding now because I had more difficulty taking this second sip of water. I could hear the blood pumping through my ears and told myself they felt warm because my heart was beating faster, not as a symptom of anaphylaxis. I forced myself to breathe regularly and think through the situation calmly. This might not be anaphylaxis, I thought; my ears tingled in response to the lie I was telling myself. I would have to take action soon if my mind couldn't stop my body's response to an unknown allergen. I spent a few moments reasoning through my situation in an attempt to slow the bodily reaction. This shouldn't be happening; I had Jamba Juice, not any of the unknown foods from the potluck. My smoothie was from a safe environment in order to prevent an allergic reaction.
            I still remember the first day I ever tried Jamba Juice. I walked in with my mom and we questioned the innocent girl at the counter about their sanitary procedures. She walked me through the process of adding ingredients and how they were kept carefully covered to prevent cross contamination. She even told me how standard procedure required all employees to wash blenders three times before using them again. Jamba Juice was supposed to be safe; potlucks were the danger. Despite this precaution I had taken to avoid an allergic reaction, I couldn't deny that my throat was abnormally swollen.
            Mr. Cochran invited Mr. and Mrs. Crawford up to share their pictures and embarrassing stories of their oldest son; I was still struggling to swallow. "Bob's childhood went by so quickly," Mrs. Crawford reminisced, and I wondered how her memories of a childhood that passed so quickly could take so long to recount. I was pretty sure that my whole life passed through my memory with every painful swallow. "We're so proud of you, son; we know you'll go on to do great things." I needed to do something, but I was unable to leave my seat. Mackenzie's parents were next.
            I subtly reached down to my purse and found my worn out Benadryl bottle. I always carried the plastic carton full of pink pills as part of my emergency kit epi pen, inhaler, and Benadryl. I popped the lid off as quietly as I could and slowly tipped the bottle, keeping the rattling of pills to a minimum. I popped the lid back on once I had two neon pink pills in my hand. I slipped the bottle back into my purse still trying to stifle the telltale rattle and placed the two free pills under my tongue. Benadryl pills taste terrible, but I knew that partially dissolving them under my tongue would get the medication into my blood stream faster than swallowing them straight away. After a minute I washed the remainder of the pills down with a big gulp of water. Taking the antihistamine should slow the swelling down, and hopefully even decrease it. I had sixteen ounces left, and I my struggle to swallow only seemed worse after half an hour of sipping the first sixteen ounces. My hope was secure in the benefits of Benadryl; I should be swallowing normally in a matter of minutes if this was a minor reaction.
            I had finished the rest of my water bottle by the time Mackenzie's parents finished sharing their photos and stories. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, fiddling with my empty water bottle. The Benadryl was failing me. I still couldn't swallow normally, and I needed to keep water moving down my throat or it might close up forever. This was more than a minor reaction. I was on my way to a full blown anaphylactic reaction.
            I managed to slip out during the next family's moment of glory. I fumbled with the lid on my water bottle as I hurried down the hall to fill it in the kitchen sink. I gulped down a few ounces and refilled the bottle to the brim before returning to the dark, stuffy gym. I walked calmly and slowly, remembering the nurse's stern reprimand after my major anaphylactic reaction in kindergarten. "You shouldn't have run to the bathroom!" She had yelled, "Movement pumps the allergen through your blood faster. Next time don't move. You don't want your heart rate to increase and make the reaction worse."
            Obviously, I wasn't frozen like the nurse would have wanted, but I also still telling myself that I was not having a full blown anaphylactic reaction. The tingling in my ears increased as the lie passed through my mind. Frustrated that my ears and throat were out of my control, I willed my heart to pump slower, to slow down the reaction that was shutting down my body. I returned to the stuffy gym and sat down next to Mackenzie. She gave me a concerned look, but I brushed it off as I whispered, "I just needed to refill my water bottle." She was momentarily appeased.
            I turned my attention back to the current set of parents sharing about their graduating student. "Hannah was always a curious child," a mom's tender voice captioned the picture of a seven year old digging in the mud. I caught sight of my own mom's best friend, Darcie, with her family. Darcie had a daughter graduating this year; she also had a son my age with the same allergies as me. She also was a registered nurse. Darcie had been my emergency contact on every important form since I was six. I took a long sip of water, almost feeling the walls of my throat touching. Even though I still couldn't swallow right, I could breathe a little easier knowing that Darcie was in the same room.
            I took another sip and prayed that I would be able to swallow easily by the time I finished these thirty-two ounces of water. I shifted in my seat, impatient for the next family to finish. Parents always talked forever about their graduating students. By the time I finished the second thirty-two ounces, there were still nearly one third of the parents left to share. After drinking sixty-four ounces of water in just over an hour, I needed to stop in the bathroom before refilling my water bottle again. The only girls' bathroom in my tiny high school was connected to the makeshift locker room. I sat on the lonely bench in the tiny room and took a slow deep breath. It might be easier just to stay in here and not make a scene while I die, I thought to myself. I didn't want to die in the gym with all those families celebrating next week's graduation ceremony. I would feel horribly rude gathering my belongings and marching out of the gym while some set of parents shared the moving story of their child's first steps. The locker room seemed like the best option. It occurred to me, though, that I would be even more embarrassed to have someone find my dead body in the bathroom after this happy family celebration. That might be even more rude than walking out on the event. An involuntary swallow reminded me that my throat was still swollen and I needed to refill my water bottle.
            I stopped in the kitchen and filled my bottle with cold water before returning to my seat next to Mackenzie. She gave me another concerned look and this time I made a dismissive comment about the heat. I glanced at Darcie's family again. If I couldn't swallow by the end of this thirty-two ounce dose of water, I would make my way through the tightly packed chairs up to where Darcie sat, calmly tell her that I was having an anaphylactic reaction, and ask her to escort me to the hallway to give me my epi pen and call 911. I would feel guilty the rest of my life for ruining this event for Darcie's family, but I recognized that it might be better to have a life to regret one embarrassing event rather than giving up now and dying in the locker room. It might be embarrassing to have an ambulance show up for me at this event to which I was technically not invited, however, I considered it more appealing than the alternative of someone discovering my dead body in the locker room. With each difficult sip of water, I mentally rehearsed the path I would take through the chairs to get to Darcie and what I would say to her. With each difficult sip of water, I was still conscious of the unnatural nearness of the walls of my throat.
            My fervent prayers were decreasingly coherent as I begged God for the swelling to go down so that I didn't have to ruin this family only event for my friends. Mackenzie gave me concerned quizzical looks as she watched the water level in my transparent water bottle near zero for the third time in less than two hours. At the end of the event, all the graduates left the room to try on their caps and robes. I tipped my water bottle up as the graduates filed out and felt the last of my water run down my throat without the unnatural resistance that had persisted through the past two hours. I could swallow more normally. It wasn't perfect, but the swelling had gone down noticeably.
            Parents took pictures of the lined up graduates in wrinkled blue gowns, and I wanted to cry tears of relief. The event was over, and I had survived without ruining it for anyone. The overhead lights were switched on to help with clean up; families leaving early took extra heat with them as they left the gym. Mackenzie found me amongst the madness of families gathering their leftover dishes and congratulating one another on raising such wonderful children.
            "Are you okay?" She questioned me with a penetrating squint.
            I shifted my weight uncomfortably because I hadn't told Mackenzie when I was in danger and ought to have received immediate medical attention, but couldn't help grinning now that I was recovering without the aid of an injection of adrenaline. "Yeah, I think I'm okay now. I was having a minor anaphylactic reaction earlier though."
            "I thought so."

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Bone Chilling Cold

I never understood the phrase "bone chilling cold" until the winter I went with no heat. Sometimes it felt warmer to step outside than to curl up alone in my empty apartment. Boy, oh, boy, my joints would get stiff under my layers of blankets and I couldn't feel anything but occasional pain in my perpetually numb fingers and toes. The winter crept by, and cold clung to the walls. I was lonely all by myself in that one room studio, but I didn't have many other places to go.
I signed up for night shifts at the restaurant and stayed at the library from the moment it opened until I had to go to work. Waiting tables during a recession doesn't exactly line your pockets well, and electricity was one of the only things I could cut back. I practically survived on scraps and leftovers from the restaurant. My mattress was the only furniture I owned, and I sold off half my clothes to a second hand shop at some point in December. It was something of a whim, but I felt compelled to do it.
I took the meager $70 that seven shirts, three pairs of pants, four dresses, a jacket and three pairs of shoes got me, and I walked into an art store. I had a vision and all I needed was paint and a canvas large enough to hold it.
I understood the cold.
With the paint hung from my arm in a plastic bag, I awkwardly carried the wide canvas the twelve blocks back to my apartment. Back at home I laid the canvas on the floor and squirted the paint into my palm. I hardly felt the cold liquid hit my icy hand. My fingers knew where to direct the colors on the canvas. Pale purples and brooding blues mingled together as shocking whites threw unblending lines into the blurry mass. The thin white line became a frozen body atop the unfeeling cold palette of purple and blue.
The whole work was finished in about three hours. I sat back after bending over the canvas and guiding the paint with my frozen fingers. My hands were covered in paint and I felt so dirty and ashamed. I remember thinking I could never face my mother again if she knew what I had done with the money from my clothing.
The finished canvas was now a source of shame. I couldn't bear to look at it. Once the paint had finished drying, I hung it up in my window behind the drapes, facing outward. It functioned as another layer between me and the cold, but I couldn't help thinking I was secretly beckoning the cold into my apartment.
It wasn't until the middle of March that an art dealer came pounding on my door. It was a wonder I was home late that afternoon, but the restaurant had given me the day off by some fluke, and I had already spent a number of hours at the library. My apartment was a last resort.
His name was Zosima. He asked me how much the painting in the window was. I stared back blankly; I hadn't even invited him inside, and, thinking he had the wrong apartment, I began to close the door and tell him I didn't know what he was talking about. He stuck his hand out to stop me from closing the door.
"Please," he said so politely, "I must have it."
Somehow he slipped into my apartment as I closed the door in bewilderment. I remember trying to convince myself it was a bad idea to have a strange man in my apartment with the door closed.
"What's your name?" He asked me gently.
I didn't know if I should reply, but I answered, "Abbie," as I watched him deftly pull his checkbook out of his thick black overcoat. A pen immediately followed and he told me he needed the painting as he filled out a check.
"Will this do?" He asked me once he extended the check to me. I took it and looked at the check made out to "Abby." It was for five thousand dollars; I could turn on the heat.
"Is this for real?" I asked, looking up at him.
"Absolutely. May I see it?"
I pointed to the drapes that covered the canvas and he briskly walked to the place and uncovered his treasure. He turned it towards himself and gazed at it lovingly. Abruptly he turned back to me and demanded, "Do you have any more like it?"
"I only made the one," I replied dumbly.
"His eyes widened, but I had no idea what was going through his mind. His eyes scanned across the painting and after a moment he asked, "Did you sign it?"
"Where's your paint? You must sign it."
Embarrassed, I walked to my kitchen area and opened a cupboard that was empty except for my leftover paint. I squirted some on an old bill laying out on my countertop and dipped the cap of a pen into the white blob.
"Set it down," I instructed the man, and he immediately obeyed.
I kneeled down to the bottom right hand corner and scrawled, "Abbie Smith."
The man watched my every move. As I stood up he darted to where I had set the check down and ripped it up. I felt my heart sink and the cold crash in with a new vigor; I was chilled to the bone. The sight of the check had given me the first hope of heat in my apartment in over five months. He didn't let me linger in despair for very long, however; in a matter of seconds I was holding a new check in my hands made out to Abbie Smith for six thousand dollars.
"Can you make me another?"
The cold I felt in between the checks was long enough to freeze a second vision in my mind. I nodded in response to his question. "But I can't promise more than one."
"That's alright. I'll take them one at a time."
He smiled before carefully picking the painting up off the floor and walking to the door. I watched him lovingly balance the wide canvas in one hand as he opened the door and closed it as he left. I looked at the check in my cold hand when I was left alone; a pride of lions on the African plains looked back at me through the print on the check. 

Death on Stage Right

This is an unedited version of what I turned in for class. It's been revised since.

Gavin slid into his seat just as the final chime marking the eleventh hour sang out into the warm spring air. All the windows were open in the classroom on the edge of campus, and Gavin's seat by the window gave him a perfect view of the busy street before him. The professor stood at the edge of the wall of windows and cleared his throat to begin the class.
"Well, class, you've all finished reading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for today." The professor looked around the room at the mix of bored and engaged students; his gaze settled on Gavin. "What do you make of the text, Gavin?"
Gavin had greatly enjoyed the text and was excited to begin the discussion. "I was intrigued with how Stoppard brought life to minor characters of another work, but what interested me most was the reality of death in the final scene. The characters knew that their death was imminent, and yet they applauded death performed by the actors that was a representation of what would actually happen to them. Then thinking that this text could be performed as a play itself gave it even deeper meaning to the four dead bodies in the final scene that would be actors taking a bow after the final curtain." Gavin's response was genuine, and he hoped to spend a great deal of their class discussing the reality of death in the play. He wore a satisfied smile after his opening remarks because the professor gave an approving nod near the end.
Gavin glanced out the window as the professor started his own response to Gavin's remarks. "Yes, it's interesting you bring up the perform-" The professor never finished his sentence.
With his full view of the street Gavin watched as a silver Jetta zipped from a side street and in front of a blue minivan that didn't have time to screech to a halt in time. A horrifying scream preceded the simultaneous crunch of metal and crash of glass. The middle aged woman driving the minivan had slammed on her breaks hard enough to leave streaks of rubber on the road behind her car. The crash happened in the middle of the professor's sentence, but, along with the rest of the class, he turned his attention to the window at the sudden interruption. Cars stopped on either side of the wreckage that spread across most of the three lanes. Glass glittered on the street in the late morning sunshine. From his seat, Gavin had a full view of the passenger side of the Jetta, which remained somewhat unaffected by the collision, and the rear end which displayed a broken brake light on the passenger side. Gavin could also see that the rear end of the minivan was untouched although the hood was crumpled up and windshield was shattered.
Before anyone was fully able to absorb the seriousness of the situation, a short, thick student bolted out of his seat and sprinted to the street. The class could see him run to the middle of the wreckage and peer into the window of the Jetta. He quickly turned his attention to the driver of the minivan and appeared to be shouting at a gathering crowd of witnesses.
A courageous student broke the silence in the classroom after everyone had stared out the windows for several minutes. "Should someone call 9-1-1?"
A few murmured affirmatively, but someone else pointed out that it looked as though one of the witnesses on the street was on their cell phone, likely with an emergency response operator. The professor attempted to return the attention to the conversation of the text. Most students struggled to turn their gaze from the scene unfolding outside the window, and the attempts to focus the students away from the tragedy were halfhearted. Gavin tried to give his full attention back to the class, but, like most of the students, he kept his eyes primarily on the window scene. He found an opportunity to comment on the anonymity of the primary characters when the professor asked the class about the value of a human life.
"Stoppard shows how these two lives mean nothing because the primary figures of the Hamlet storyline treat them as throw aways, but the two men equally demonstrate their agreement with the value judgment by their lack of action to avoid death. It's inevitable to them, so they have no reason to fight it."
"That's a good point. They have a lot of conversations about death throughout the whole play. So is the focus on death or on the -" Sirens cut short another of the professor's sentences as an ambulance and a fire truck made their way on to the scene. The class returned its full attention to the street as the emergency vehicles parked and silenced their blaring horns. Firemen and EMTs rushed to the two cars; the drivers of each had not moved in the ten minutes since the crash occurred. The scene unfolded before them like a silent drama as none of the frantic rescue workers' voices could reach through the window. Firemen helped the driver of the Jetta out of his car and over to the back of the ambulance. The response workers spent more time around the driver's door of the minivan before a stretcher was brought over to where they crowded around. The middle aged woman was maneuvered onto the stretcher and brought to the ambulance as the driver of the Jetta was escorted away.
At that point the professor chose to dismiss the class early with a comment about the opportunity to ponder the value of life in a different context.
Gavin was one of the first to leave the classroom, eager for the chance to find a few critical articles for the paper on this text which he would finish writing this weekend. He spent the rest of his afternoon crafting the arguments for his paper examining Stoppard's presentation of death in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. At dinner Gavin found a full table of students in the busy cafeteria and entered the middle of a conversation about the accident that afternoon.
"You were in the class too, weren't you, Gavin? Did you see the dead body?"
"Dead body?" Gavin looked up from his food. "I didn't know anybody died."
"Yeah, the driver of the minivan was dead by the time the EMTs got to her."
Gavin ate the rest of his dinner in silence, musing over the loss of life that had happened right before his eyes. The crash had looked like a scene lifted from a low budget action film, but there were no stunt people involved. The minivan driver's life was a throw away to the absent director of that cheap plot. The Jetta driver's life must only be enhanced by the close encounter; he, in fact, had been responsible for the accident, but was able to limp away from the situation. The Jetta driver was a careless Hamlet who threw away the life of Rosencrantz or Guildenstern without a thought. Perhaps he would think about it now, though. Perhaps Hamlet thought about the lives he had thrown away before his own death at the end of Shakespeare's play. Gavin realized that would be a great point that would make in his paper, so he hastily cleared his dishes and rushed to revise his paper in the bowels of the library.
Few students ventured into the depths of the library, which is why Gavin considered it the perfect place to write his papers uninterrupted. He ventured to the farthest corner where two old armchairs and a small coffee table where shoved out of the way of the rows and rows of books. Gavin had never found students in both chairs, and rarely was even one of them occupied. He was considerably surprised as he passed the final row of bookshelves to discover the short classmate who had ran on to the scene of the accident that morning curled up into one of the chairs. The other student acknowledge Gavin with a faint nod, but rested his head on his knees without a verbal greeting.
Still determined to sit in his favorite spot and draft out his thoughts about Hamlet's remorse (or lack thereof) after the careless treatment of two minor characters who had real lives in their own right, Gavin settled into the open chair and pulled out his computer. While his computer was warming up the short student, still with his knees pulled up on the chair and head bent down, spoke to Gavin.
"She had three kids." The student spoke softly; after a pause he said, "I held her hand as she took her last breath."
Gavin was unsure how to respond, so he stayed silent and turned his attention back to his paper.

Entry 2

I can hardly believe I've been here for over two weeks now. It seems like just yesterday that I was getting off my plane on Ekon. It's an amazing planet, but very different than my home nation. There is no open country here! They're painted landscapes across my walls to make it look like home, but out my window I see another skyscraper across from me. My building houses most of the representatives from Earth. My living space is half of the 171st and 172nd floors. The opposite half of my floors are occupied by a sweet gal from a tiny European nation called Ireland. The fellow from Kenya lives above me.
Outside my window I see the building that houses the representatives from Ewthers and Went. Ewthers has less than 100 representatives, so most of the occupants are from Went. I still have a lot of training to do before I can meet any representatives from Went. Carlos, the Mexican representative, tells me they would find my southern hospitality offensive. England's representative, Chelsea, has been Earth's most effective communicator with Earth.
Carlos suspects that I'll have better luck with the Alamans from Kalaki than Mugo, my Kenyan neighbor, has had, and he's asked me to accompany Mugo on his next visit to the Kalaki Skyscraper. I was a little nervous to agree to make a political visit so soon to my arrival, but Carlos nearly insisted.
I have a hard time saying no to Carlos; he's been my biggest advocate for the last eight years. While I traveled here in hypersleep, Carlos was tirelessly preparing my place in the Earth Skyscraper and advocating for me as a valuable representative among the nations of Earth as well as the ambassadors from other planets. Having represented Mexico in the IPC for nearly twenty years, he's earned the respect of all of Earth's ambassadors, and most ambassadors from other planets. He asked me to help out Mugo a couple days ago explaining to me that Kenya was asking for the removal of Alamani research plants from his home nation. Apparently the Alamani had asked to conduct research on the Kenyan soil thirty years ago, and when the researchers arrived two years ago they began siphoning natural resources out of the land.
Before I forget, I need to record my up to date report of what I've learned about my nation and our interactions with America. Texas is alive and kickin'! Not that I doubted that would be the case when I arrived, but we were only two years old when I set out, and I wasn't sure how the other nations on Earth would respond to my arrival on Ekon. I've been welcomed by everyone I've met, though perhaps a little more coldly by Juniper, the American ambassador. Juniper has been polite every time we've said hello, but our formal sit-down to establish our respective nations positions in the congress has yet to happen. That's scheduled for after I come back from the Kalaki adventure with Mugo. We leave on Tuesday morning.
J. J.